Organizing a large set of colored pencils

I bought the biggest honkin’ set of Prismacolors they make, 132 pencils. The tins in which Prismacolors are packaged nowadays are pretty but aren’t practical for daily use.  So, what to do?  I couldn’t find anything on the market that fit the bill.  There are various generic boxes made for storage and transport, but not for ready availability.  I finally thought to contact an established, award-winning colored pencil artist and ask what they use.  So I emailed fellow CPSA member Jeff George.  He was kind enough to send me a snapshot of his setup, a set of carboard tubes hot-glued to a piece of foamcore.  Bingo!

I cut a piece of foamcore 6″x13″. Then I went to the hardware store and had them cut 8 pieces of 2.5″ PVC pipe, each 3.25″ long. I glued the lengths of pipe to the foamcore. Voila! A pencil holder that’s beefy, nothing’s going to knock it over. Yellows in one tube, reds in another, etc., tips up.

My colored pencil organizer

You could substitute cardboard tubes for PVC, and wood or plastic for foamcore.

While you’re at it, spend a couple of hours to do the following and you’ll never have to search more than a few seconds for the right color from a large set.

1. Sort pencils in chromatic sequence per Prismacolor’s website (; click the Color Palettes tab, select your set size)
2. Wrap a little number label around the top of each pencil.
3. Create a sampler chart that includes the name, label number, and a color swatch for each pencil and post it near your drawing table.
4. Group pencils by general color in sequence. Now the next time you’re looking for just the right brown, refer to your sampler, note the label number, and pluck the pencil from its group.

Keeping pets off work-in-progress

After a new kitten walked all over a pastel drawing I was working on a couple of years ago and not only ruined it but tracked the chalk everywhere, I knew I’d need to cover my colored pencil drawings in progress even when I step away for just a minute. My drawing table is right next to a window that’s a popular bird-viewing spot! But I didn’t want to lay paper directly on the drawing surface. The perfect solution turned out to be a 20×30 piece of 1/2" thick foamcore, with 1" squares glued to the corners. It’s very light, very stiff (not even the weight of an adult cat can bow it), and the corners keep it up off the surface. When I’m working I keep it within arm’s reach.

How did I get here?

Many of my friends who have only ever known me as a software engineer, fitness instructor or motorcycle racer, were very surprised to find out I had a “hidden” (actually dormant) talent for drawing.  So they ask: 1) why wasn’t I doing art all these years instead, and 2) what made me finally go back to art?

To answer the first question, well, you know that cliche of the “starving artist”?  There’s a reason that cliche exists: it’s reality, most working artists don’t earn much of a living from their art. I sure never wanted to live hand-to-mouth, and I was afraid of ending up that way.  So that’s why I veered away from an art career after college.  But what about doing it on the side?  Well, art takes a lot of time.  What I do bears little resemblance to doodling absent-mindedly on a notepad during a meeting–it requires full attention for hours on end to produce a drawing that you would want to hang on a wall.  Working full-time as a software engineer in Silicon Valley isn’t just a 40-hour-a-week commitment, it’s usually 50 hours, sometimes even much more.  When you don’t get home until 8 or 10 PM and still haven’t eaten dinner, there is no energy or time left for creativity before falling into bed, and weekends are for catching up on chores.

This is not to say that I had no life outside of work.  I was very involved in amateur motorcycle roadracing with the American Federation of Motorcyclists for seven years, and my “hobby job” for more than 20 years has been group fitness class instruction.  I still am an on-track riding instructor with ZoomZoom Trackdays.

Over the years, I avoided going into art supply stores because it was torture to see all the wonderful supplies that I could be using, feeling the urge raise its head, knowing I had no time to use the supplies I already had tucked away. It was like being a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store!

But in 2009 the urge started coming back more persistently.  I don’t quite know how to describe it other than “urge”–a feeling that I needed to be doing something with my art, that I should be drawing.  And I started seeing “signs” (for lack of a better word).  A drawing pencil laying in a crosswalk right where I was crossing;  a chance meeting with a woman who is a patron of the arts and gave me several large sheets of excellent drawing paper.  The one that really hit me over the head, finally, was a conversation with a software engineer friend at Adobe who had arranged to cut back to part-time, 4-day work weeks so he could spend time on his art.  I didn’t even realize this was possible in Silicon Valley!  My mind went to spinning.  The idea of having one whole day every week to dedicate as “art day” was too much to resist.  I had to do it.

In short order, I negotiated the same arrangement with my employer, and a room of the house became my studio.   As 2010 progressed, I finished more than 15 drawings, including five commissions, and even more “signs” occurred: my mother had a massive stroke just one day after I finished a portrait of her; the Colored Pencil Society of America held their annual convention just three miles from home; and finally, my employer, PGP, was acquired by Symantec, making me “transitional”.  This seemed like a logical point to make the full migration back to art.

So here I am in early 2011.  I’m drawing like crazy, learning how to market my art, and making a go of it.  The rollercoaster car has left the platform!